SQ321 incident: SIA’s new safety measures affecting in-flight service, raising crew stress levels

On a full flight in economy class, meal service can take one or two hours to complete, barring any disruptions. -ST FILE

SINGAPORE: The new Singapore Airlines (SIA) in-flight service protocol, in which meal service is suspended and cabin crew members must buckle up when the seat-belt sign is turned on, has had a ripple effect on passengers and crew.

Most people who spoke to The Straits Times said they understood SIA’s need to update its protocol. But a handful of frequent fliers described it as a hasty move, and said the national carrier’s new regulations are already having repercussions on its service offerings and drive up stress levels of cabin crew.

SIA put more comprehensive safety measures in place shortly after Flight SQ321 from London to Singapore experienced such severe turbulence on May 21 that a passenger died and dozens were injured.

Previously, only hot drinks and soup were not allowed to be served when the seat-belt sign was turned on, and service could continue at the discretion of the crew, but meal service must now be completely paused.

A civil servant, who wanted to be known only as Matthew, 32, said while he agreed that safety was of utmost importance, the impact of this change was bound to be felt by both crew and passengers, especially on short-haul flights.

He added: “It just seems like a knee-jerk reaction since it was implemented so quickly. Some crew members I’ve spoken with are stressed out about whether there will even be sufficient time to complete the entire meal service.”

On a full flight in economy class, meal service can take one or two hours to complete, barring any disruptions. In business class, meals are generally served course by course for medium- and long-haul flights, while a tray-service meal is served on short-haul flights. Meal service also often requires the crew to maintain a constant presence in the cabin.

Some netizens went as far as to suggest that passengers should take along their own food and drinks on board in case meal service was canned due to turbulence, especially on short- and medium-haul flights.

When asked if passengers will be compensated in the event that meal service is severely disrupted, how long the measures are likely to be in place, and if the policy will be extended to SIA subsidiary airline Scoot, an SIA spokesperson said: “SIA and Scoot will continue to review and adjust our in-flight procedures, as necessary.”

Engineer Zac Tng, 30, who travelled from Seattle in the US to Singapore with SIA on May 23, said his in-flight meal was postponed thrice due to turbulence. He was seated in economy class on a full flight and observed that the seat-belt sign came on three or four times in the span of an hour.

“On previous flights, if the turbulence was not too bad, they would still serve meals. But for this flight, every time the plane shook a little, the pilots would make an announcement to pause meal service and ask passengers to put on their seat belts.”

He added: “The cabin crew had to keep stowing the carts after pulling them out because of the seat-belt sign. But once they could serve meals, they tried to expedite it.”

Despite the additional 1½-hour wait for his first meal, Tng said he felt that the changes were necessary to keep both passengers and crew safe, as turbulent weather gets more unpredictable.

Travel website MileLion founder Aaron Wong, who flew from Paris to Singapore in business class on SIA on May 22, said he was informed by the in-flight supervisor about the changes to cabin service.

“What happened on SQ321, tragic as it is, is a black-swan event. The biggest change now is to cabin service, which I can only assume is temporary,” he told ST.

He added: “Mild to moderate turbulence should not be an issue for able-bodied, properly trained crew members. So there is no logic in adopting the same set of turbulence rules for both passengers and crew, beyond a brief safety timeout period where the standard operating procedures can be reviewed.”

Long-haul flights tend to have at least two meals served on board – one shortly after take-off, and one more around 2½ to three hours before landing. However, Wong said his second meal, breakfast, was served six hours before the 6.20am arrival time.

He said that the idea behind this was that “flights inbound from Europe do pass over a patch of the Andaman Sea known for turbulence”, and that the cabin crew had informed him they were buffering time for disruptions to the meal service. The Andaman Sea is part of the Indian Ocean, located to the west of Thailand.

He also noted: “When walking through the cabin, I could see that everyone was taking a much more serious stance towards belting up even when the seat-belt sign was off, which can only be a good thing.”

SIA cabin crew, who spoke to ST on condition of anonymity, said that pausing all service when the seat-belt sign comes on may mean working under time pressure, particularly on shorter regional flights.

One flight attendant estimated that, during her recent 3½-hour flight plying a Singapore-India route, there was more than one hour of turbulence. The cabin crew had to carry out meal service with what little time remained.

“Some passengers don’t understand why the service policy change is important, and rate service as average to poor via the customer feedback channel after flights where service was affected by turbulence,” she said.

“We’re stressed and fatigued, but at the moment there’s nothing we can do except continue to navigate our work under the given circumstances.”

A flight steward said crew members have had to make adjustments “by doing things like removing after-take-off drinks to manage the time we have for meal service”.

He noted: “Passenger reactions vary – some are very understanding, while others feel short-changed.”

At pre-flight briefings he has attended since the incident, in-flight managers have been actively checking on crew members’ well-being, he said. A counselling team has also been formed to provide cabin crew with support, he added.

Another crew member said: “While it might be more stressful as meal service may be affected, I think crew will try to provide the same service standards safely.”

University student Kelsy Koh, 22, who recently returned to Singapore from her summer exchange programme in Dublin, Ireland, said the SQ321 incident has made her more cautious.

On her May 25 SIA flight back from Paris, she made sure to tighten her seat belt, where previously she would have left it fastened loosely.

“The two passengers next to me always wore seat belts and I didn’t hear the familiar clicks of people unbuckling when the seat-belt signs were turned off,” she said.

Data analyst Jeffrey Teo, 29, who flew to Vietnam on budget airline Scoot on May 22, also observed that many people kept their seat belts fastened throughout the flight and headed to the washroom earlier, rather than when the pilot made the landing announcement.

He added: “Once the seat-belt sign came on and the crew made an announcement to be seated, it was a no-questions-asked situation and everyone queueing for the washroom quickly went back to their seats. Prior to the (SQ321) incident, I’ve seen people take their own sweet time or just continue to queue.”

Cabin crew recounted to ST similar observations about passengers in the past week, noting that they did not stand up unnecessarily and were less likely to congregate around the galley or toilets.

While these good habits are a welcome sight, many are sceptical that the newfound caution will last.

“I imagine this kind of vigilance would eventually fade away, but at least for the near term, people are more conscious about being belted up,” said MileLion’s Wong.

As phenomena like clear air turbulence, which can occur without warning and is typically undetectable, are likely to become more prevalent with climate change, airlines may have to re-evaluate their service protocols to prioritise safety.

“We can’t fight Mother Nature,” said an SIA crew member who has been flying for more than a decade, adding that safety remains the crew’s top priority.

John Tan, lead professional officer teaching in the air transport management degree programme at the Singapore Institute of Technology, said the policy change “highlights the importance of adaptability in aviation safety”.

“Prompt responses are necessary to protect passengers and crew effectively. Enacting policy changes in response to incidents fosters a culture of continuous improvement in safety practices, which is vital in the aviation industry where safety is paramount,” he said.

But the task of balancing safety and service quality may present a challenge for SIA, said Tan.

“The objective is to reduce the time cabin crew have to spend on the aisles. For SIA, this could translate into retraining cabin crew to increase their efficiency, or changing the way services are delivered without compromising service quality. And the option to restructure the cabin layout remains a possibility,” he added.

Still, Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics, believes that SIA’s service quality will not be affected by the new protocol.

“The decision was arrived at after careful consideration and the urgent need to, first and foremost, prevent nasty injuries for passengers and crew in the future,” he said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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Singapore , SIA , turbulence , crew , stress , protocol


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